Going to work on my bike

Today I had a day off work.  This was partly to use up one of the handful of days of annual leave that I have left, which are supposed to be used by the end of March, and partly because I needed to do a bit of bike maintenance (specifically, adjusting the gears after having done some work on the rear hub the other day).

As I was getting up this morning and trying to figure out how to fill my day, I found myself thinking “I’m going to work on my bike” and then realised that I could say the same thing, albeit with different intonation and a completely different meaning, most mornings.  It struck me that, while the spoken language makes fairly clear the difference between the two meanings (which could be paraphrased as “today I’ll be mostly doing bike maintenance” and “I am travelling to my workplace by means of my bicycle”), there’s no obvious way (e.g. by punctuation) to indicate in written English which meaning should be attached to this particular combination of words.  Obviously, it can always be rephrased to make the meaning clearer, or in the context of a longer passage of prose it would probably be fairly obvious what was meant, but as it stands it does seem to be an inherently ambiguous sentence in written form.

Thinking about this put me in mind of several other examples  of ambiguity I have recently encountered in written English.

The other day, while reading up on the different usages of the em-dash (—), en-dash (–) and hyphen (-), I came across a delightful example of a phrase whose unambiguous interpretation in written English relies upon correct punctuation (unlike the bike-related sentence above, it’s quite easy to disambiguate this with punctuation).  The phrase is “three hundred year old trees”.  This could be interpreted in 3 ways, which can be distinguished by insertion of hyphens at appropriate points.  They are:

  • three-hundred-year-old trees; i.e. an unspecified number of trees that are 300 years old
  • three hundred-year-old trees; i.e. 3 trees, each 100 years old
  • three hundred year-old trees; i.e. 300 trees, each 1 year old

In spoken English, of course, you would differentiate these three cases by where you placed the stresses and pauses in the utterance.  The context would probably also help to determine the meaning in both the spoken and written phrases if they were used as part of a longer speech.

A few days earlier, I found myself writing another phrase which had a potentially ambiguous interpretation.  I wrote about an event finishing with “a short talk by the town clock”.  Although it was clear to me that the “by” in this sentence indicated a physical location rather than the agent of the talk, and it would have been clear enough from the context what I meant, I decided it would be safer to rephrase it as “a short talk near the town clock”.

I’m sure pretty much any other language (with the  possible exception of Lojban) is also susceptible to ambiguities.  Of course, that’s all part of the fun of language!

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